Music News

Whoa, Mann!

Whether she's singing through speakers or in the footlights of the stage, or talking on the other end of a telephone, there's a certain distance in Aimee Mann's voice that makes her sound a million miles away. Especially today, while she's on break from an L.A. recording session for an upcoming holiday record. She sounds a little farther away than normal. After all, it's 85 degrees in the shade, 204 shopping days until Christmas.

"It's not so bad," says Mann, in her typically cool drawl. "At least you get to just enjoy the Christmas songs without all the pressure of Christmas. It's easier. You just get to enjoy the spirit of them."

It's a rosy sentiment, but her voice -- a famously wry, disaffected half moan that we were first introduced to when her old band, 'Til Tuesday, warned that "Voices Carry" -- sounds as if she spent Christmas Eve in a dentist's reception area and just unwrapped a lump of coal.

That melancholic disposition, however, has been Mann's stock in trade for the better part of a decade. And while she still describes herself as "middle-class famous," she's emerged as one of the most heralded songwriting voices of her generation.

"It's flattering," she allows, "but I don't know how that kind of thing comes to happen, how you start to get known as a songwriter.

"There are a lot of writers that I've looked to who've helped me understand that you can write about life in a really frank, honest way about things that I might not have had the courage to do otherwise," she continues, mentioning Elliott Smith and Liz Phair as inspirational figures early on in her career. "It's like a justification that songs don't have to resolve. It was really liberating to discover that I could do that."

But with Mann's most recent full-length release, The Forgotten Arm, she's turned her attention to the unresolved (and irresolvable) situations of others -- namely, a fictional junkie boxer named John and his lass, Carol. Instead of the complex narratives that Mann established with Lost in Space and Bachelor No. 2 -- so vivid that the songs inspired one of the most memorable films of recent memory, Magnolia -- we're offered a fluffy concept record based on the artificial caricatures of two ill-fated lovers. It begins with the line "Cotton candy was king on the midway that spring," but never manages to offer a full course.

"The characters I was thinking about took over the writing of that record," she explains. "The more I wrote, the more certain they became, and instead of trying to write the record away from them, I just gave in to the direction that the songs were going, the direction that they seemed naturally inclined to go."

But after the soft critical and popular reception of The Forgotten Arm, the world seems more interested in the destinations of Mann herself, and with the mid-career concept record behind her, she is more ready than ever for the trip.

"When I sit down at the piano and decide to write, things happen," she says. "I definitely don't write a new song every time I decide I want to, but, like any discipline, you get a lot more done when you're sitting there, concentrating, working on it, than if you're sitting at the pool or something. And when you sit there long enough, an idea is bound to take you somewhere."